Capitalism Hits Home: Family - A Feminist, Class Analysis

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In this episode of Capitalism Hits Home, Dr. Fraad traces the history of the traditional family unit and offers a class analysis of how it has shifted and evolved since the 1700s. Fraad discusses the feudal arrangement of families, the impact of the French Revolution and WWII, and how issues of family form are being disputed in the political sphere today.

Transcript has been edited for clarity

Hello, this is Dr. Harriet Fraad bringing you Capitalism Hits Home. It's a show about the intersections of personal with political life. It's produced by Democracy at Work, a non-profit, small, donor-funded media.

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Today I'm talking about the first part of a two part series. The first part of the series is on the family, because the family as we know it now- Mommy, Daddy, children - was not always the family, and it won't always be the way we personally relate to each other in our intimate lives, but it's been presented as if it was an eternal verity, so I want to talk about the family - where it came from. I want to give a class analysis of the family, the American family, and where it's going; and I'm doing this in honor of an amazing thing that's happened in the family : on September 25th of 2022, this year, the Cubans passed the most progressive, feminist, free of homophobia Family Code in the entire world. It was drafted and written in a national referendum which took place - where 800,000; no, it was a million and a half people, actually - participated in 80,000 different neighborhood networks, and a million and a half people drafted it together : things they wanted in there - they debated them and then they sent them into the government - and they made a Family Code with all of their participations.

I'll talk about that in the next podcast, but in this podcast I want to talk about the history of the capitalist family, the family we know today, and I'll be talking about how this family was constituted, why it was ,and - because it's changed enormously - and because people think of it as an eternal institution - and it isn't - there were other ways that people lived together before and there'll be other ways later.

Before the 1700s children were basically disposable, if you had children one of the ways that you used birth control was you killed the kids you didn't want. Émile is the first child development tract, which was written in the 1700s, and it was considered the first tract important about Child Development. Well, the writer of that tract had five babies, he and his wife, and they killed three of them and kept two, and that was perfectly acceptable at the time. There are murals and pictures, you know - drawn accounts, they didn't have cameras then - of women throwing their kids into the canal, and that was quite acceptable at that time, until the late 1700s - people treated excess children the way they might treat excess children, I mean kittens, these days. They were left at the market in case somebody wanted to adopt a child; they were left by the side of the road, exposed to the elements; they were sold, so that they could be used as slaves; or had their bones broken and were used as beggars, or for whatever else, because they weren't really very important. Those who had enough money sent their kids away from right after birth until about age four or five to be wet nursed by wet nurses in the country who picked them up and put them in wagons, and if some of them fell off it was no big deal; if they didn't come back it was no big deal. Also girls of about seven or eight were sent into domestic service, if they didn't have money, where they worked for wealthier people in their houses; and boys were sent out to Apprentice by the time they were 10 at the latest, and so they weren't kept in the kind of home we imagined people growing up at home.

There's a really great book, I have it behind me, called The Kindness of Strangers, which is written by Boswell, a brilliant Yale historian I think. It was written in 1980, big fat book, which documents this. One of the things he says that's interesting is that the most common Italian name in the United States is Esposito which means the exposed one, because children who were exposed were even less valued and were more likely to escape to another country to have to make a living. At any rate that's the history of where the family came from.

In the 1700s it was discovered that children, really - children were important to a society , because they needed personnel to fight wars and therefore it was better that they be kept alive, and it began to be illegal to kill your kids to kill your kids - not that they came down on it, they didn't. It wasn't until 1962 that The Battered Child Act; well - The Battered Child paper was published and it wasn't until 1967 that if you brought your kid to the hospital dead, and said they fell down the stairs, you could get in trouble. So it's only in recent history that children's lives were valued at all. If you kill a child the prison sentence is about six months on average ; whereas if you kill an adult human being it's a whole lot longer. So what about this family?

Well the birth of that family happened after the French Revolution. The birth of the basic contours of the family that we've known as the traditional family , which in marxian terms is the feudal family, in that traditional family the wife had the position of a feudal serf. She lived in a domicile,some kind of rental, or home that was in the husband's name (the rental or the ownership), and she got a share of what she produced: the food, the resources of child care, the cleaning , the cooking, the taking care of her husband - she got a share of what she produced, in order - really in exchange , like a feudal serf, for working on property owned by her husband.

This was put into motion after the French Revolution, because after the French Revolution things were very chaotic in France; after the transitions in Britain they were similar, and similar all over the world. What happened was that the old order broke down, that was the order of serfs and lords, the feudal order which was blessed by the Catholic Church all around Europe; there the father of the family was the father - the oldest living male who gave birth to children - and his first lieutenant was his firstborn son, and they decided the futures of everyone else in the family- whether they would marry,whether they would be single, where they would work, if they could work.

When feudalism broke down that family form broke down, because the serfs left for towns that were starting, they had to get off of the land because the feudal Lords wanted to use huge tracts of land for raising livestock and sheep, and therefore they didn't need all these little family farms, and these little family feudal serfs offering up a share of their produce to the lord in exchange for working the lord's land, so they were thrown out, and the whole feudal order broke down . People went to little towns where some of them had jobs guarding the others and the others got by with whatever they could , stealing and so on... Children were born outside of any kind of wedding, or any kind of way of supporting them, because there was no structure in place.

And so after the French Revolution those who still had the means saw an emergency. They were what was left of the French nobility that hadn't been killed; what was left of the Catholic clergy, who owned vast tracts of land and who by their Good Fortune hadn't been killed in the revolution, which was against the old feudal order. And the elements of the aristocracy that were still left, and some of the newly rich people from the towns realized they had to do something. The reason they realized, is one of the big demands of the French Revolution was State support for children. Victor Hugo has that in Les Miserables. Children were on the barricades and demanded State support through their childhood, and the rich realized - uh oh. If there's State support, who's going to be able to pay for it? There'll be taxes on us, that can't happen.

And so they came up with the nuclear family idea, that the man would be the feudal lord of his own little household ,the wife would be there because she would have protection, through pregnancy, and in exchange she would work full time on the care of the home, on production in the home of the foodstuffs they ate, of cleanliness and child care - and she would be protected that way, underneath the feudal male; the children would be chattel, and one could sell their children or rent them out or whatever - they were chattel now.

That was documented in an incredible book by Jacques Donzelot called The Policing of the Family. It's not good reading, it's written in the turgid difficult prose that some French intellectuals and some American ones as well write in; but he documents very carefully and historically what these meetings were and the agreements that were drawn up, and the way they enforce that kind of family is that no one was given a job unless he had that kind of family - dependent wife and children - and people were desperate for work because the society had broken down and there was nothing available, and in that way they enforced the new family form, with the man in charge of his feudal household and the woman given protection doing the domestic labor, childbirth and child care - and the children as chattel.

We have to remember that it wasn't until, I think 1936, that you couldn't put your kids out to work , and profit from their labor, and that you couldn't, even until the 1960s you could, you would have permission - not explicit permission, it was frowned on to kill one's children; but you could get away with bringing your dead kid to the emergency room and making up a story- so it's in recent history that this is changing and it's in recent history that the Family itself is really changing, and one of the conditions of that feudal family was the Catholic Church, which reinforced obedience on the part of women , and considered women in charge of Hearth and Home, which is still part of their doctrine, and had no particular position on the rights of children at all, and supported the right of the father - that right which was explicitly abolished in the recent Cuban Family Code law.

At any rate this family in some form or another lasted until recently, when that feudal family began to break down. Now why did that break down? Well in its amended form that feudal family was the'traditional', in quotes American family: the wage earning male, the dependent Wife and Kids - the wife who does the housework, the children who hopefully obey, the husband who brings in the money - and that was enabled by America's hegemonic position in the world after World War II, in the 50s when this family model was strongest men got a family wage; but even before that it was assumed that when you pay a man you're paying to support a man and his family -in the 1950s after so many years and deaths of Labor struggle, men were paid well enough to support a dependent wife and children. That changed when capitalists decided that they could export jobs, because of things like the fax machine, because of computers, because of fast international travel they were allowed to then open their factories in places that hadn't won the labor gains of American workers. They could hire Pakistani or Chinese or Indian workers. The Chinese were paid best, at three dollars an hour; but there were no ecological demands or protections, no days off, no family leave, no sick days. What a bonanza for American capitalism! And so millions of what were better white male jobs were exported to China and India, and Pakistan and Bangladesh etc. and white males were no longer able to support dependent wives and children.

That happened in the late 70s, and in order to meet any kind of standard of living women poured into the labor force, even women with children, poured into the labor force. Now 75 percent of women with children between 5 and 12 are in the labor force, and 40 percent of women with children under five are in the labor force, because in to make ends meet women had to go to work. Well this precipitated a huge change in the feudal household because women who were working outside of the home didn't want to come home and do all the household work themselves, and take care of their husbands emotional and sexual needs as well; and man, whose masculinity was challenged by their lowered wages, didn't want to stoop to degraded housework. Housework was always devalued because it was done by women, who weren't paid anything; professional housework was done by women of color, who were terribly badly paid and often had to live with the family as well, and therefore denied any chance of properly rearing their own families - and men didn't want to be degraded by that work.

So men and women began to be really at odds with each other because men's position in the world had changed. Families broke up - even in 1965, there was a 25 percent divorce rate. Now the real separation or divorce rate is more like 70 percent, because 50% of marriages end in separation or divorce and there's another between 15 and 25 percent who just split, because they don't have kids to fight over. They make an agreement , they don't have wealth to fight over so they just split, and don't bring it to the courts, which cost money - and therefore the American family now has evolved. The majority of American women are now single, and marriage is now rejected, more by women than by men, particularly Blue Collar men who used to earn a family wage and now definitely don't, have trouble finding wives, and blue-collar women don't want husbands who can't support them and children in the household. You know there were jokes about that that bring it home: the joke about women was 'There's a handy little thing called the wife. You screw it on the bed. It does all the housework and child care and takes care of you too right.'

The woman's equivalent was : 'Men are like linoleum. You lay them right once and you can walk on them for your entire life, right.'

Well those weren't always happy roles, but they were captured by those jokes, and now the majority of women are single. 42 percent of American children are born outside of any kind of a marriage and are raised, often well over 90 percent, by single women - and they've given birth to different kinds of households, different kinds of families, one is what I would call the independent household where a woman lives alone. She does her own housework and child care, takes care of her emotional needs, and hopefully the child's needs as well, and the man who is the father is not part of that household. That's a lot of people, that's about 42 percent of American families. There's also another evolution which is starting, which is a communal family, where the ideal is that both people work outside the home and inside of it, and help with the children as equals. That's usually - that doesn't happen very often, although it's a goal that people state, and more men than women think they've achieved; however it's a goal.

Another form of household is what was practiced in Nazi Germany and Italy and the other fascist countries, and I call that the fascist feudal household : where the woman has to work outside the home and also do all the household work inside the house and all the child care. They did that in Nazi Germany, but they didn't produce as many children as they hoped because women were so exhausted , from working all day in the Munitions factories, and then having to do the domestic labor, that they couldn't bear children - they were just too wiped out to get pregnant; and that would be the family ideal of a lot of the evangelicals and organizations like Focus on the Family that touts the wonderful nuclear family of the dependent wife and children; that's also the family form of the Southern Baptist convention, the biggest Protestant denomination, and in their declarations on gender they declare that women must be subordinate to men. Men should be protectors, women should be subordinate and follow the orders of their husbands.

So that's more like a description of a fascist feudal family since most women,as well as men in and out of families, have to work outside the home well. These are changes that are happening. They're happening because the economy has changed, also because the U.S is not bringing in as much of the wealth of the world as it used to which allowed its Blue Collar members of its Workforce to be paid well - after World War II America was the king of the world. All the other advanced economies were destroyed ; we were the only one of the participants that didn't have bombs on our home territory and our production apparatus was sound. Now manufacturing is largely done in China and India and China is now the burgeoning new power of the world, doesn't have to listen to the United States so that recently when the United States levied the sanctions on Russia, and got Western Europe not to buy their oil and gas from Russia, Russia just sent it to China and India.

The new economic Alliance is BRIC: Brazil, India, China and Russia and so the Russian oil economy is doing even better than it used to while Americans and Western Europeans, who used to be Kings of the world, are suffering without that oil and when the United States told Saudi Arabia, the leader of OPEC nations (the nations that produce oil, the 23 nations), when we told them that they'd have to make more oil and lower the price they told the U.S to go pound sand, forget it we're not doing that. We don't have that clout that we used to. We had one war that where we invaded in Korea, which was a draw, and then three lost Wars: Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan - and so we don't have that position in the world and aren't able to garner the profits all over the world and bring them home, therefore that and the decision to take factories overseas where labor is cheaper and where regulations are weaker has made American billionaires and allowed them to buy our for pay system here, our system of democracy, and has left blue collar men really out of luck - they're most likely to commit suicide and they're most likely to die of opiates - opioid abuse or opiates. But that family form is crumbling - which is based on the wage earning male and the dependent wife and children.

The suburbs are crumbling, they were built for dependent wives and children and wage earning men who commuted to the city. That isn't the form of family anymore; that's not the majority form - the majority are actually divorced and 75 percent of kids grow up with people who weren't their original - at least one parent - who weren't their original biological parents, and so that... that whole scene is over. And there are these new family forms jockeying for recognition and power therefore some of these battles are fought out in areas that seem like they don't relate to this, but are highly related - for example abortion rights: in order to have a family one can regulate, which is crucial if you have an independent family, or if you have a communal family you have to be able to regulate how many dependents you have and you need abortion rights, because no amount - there is no birth control that is absolutely a hundred percent - and also people have accidents, and don't want to be families, and they can't count on male support if they're women - and single parents don't do well here.

Other countries have recognized this, so for example in Sweden, Norway, Finland, Iceland etc.,Scandinavia, single women get less expensive apartments, because they're subsidized; they get higher wages , they get school allowances, they get child care. We don't do any of that, and so our single families are out of luck; but one way of fighting for the conditions of an independent family, is to fight for abortion rights; another is to fight for birth control , without having to see a doctor, which is often expensive, or involves long waiting time. It's only now - and it hasn't even passed yet - that the FDA is considering putting out a birth control pill that you can get without a prescription from a doctor. We're way behind on that, so it's not only abortion where this is being fought out; it's also being fought out through birth control. Another fight another location, where this is being fought out, these different class family forms, is the idea of child care under, I guess it was...no it was Nixon, it was Nixon, or Reagan I can't remember - there was a a vote by Congress for Head Start for everyone which was voted against on the basis that it interfered with the family. I should say parenthetically that every advance is fought by the right wing and religious groups as an affront to the family. Public education was opposed because it interfered with the rights of the family , and daycare and after school care the same thing. That is they are trying to fight for the family form that has been outmoded by American industry and American lowered wages.

Another terrain on which this battle is being fought is Universal Health Care, because people without good jobs - and that always included people of color in this country but the majority used to be white, can't afford American market-driven Health Care. There are all these fronts on which the battle is being fought. Another is rights for lgbtqia people, transgender people - where the right wing and the religious right is fighting against them. Whereas Progressive people who could recognize the difference in family forms are fighting for that, or voting for that. And you wonder why: why is that an issue? Well, it's an issue because the religious right decides its policy against lgbtqia plus rights on the basis that God created biologically different men and women, and that heterosexuality is mandated by God and anyone who isn't a cisgender heterosexual is against God's Will and shouldn't be allowed to function, all these things are being fought out, and the background of the fight is this fight for the family form whether it will be an independent and a communal family form or a fascist feudal form, because now that women all have to work it will be a fascist feudal family that they're voting for, and that they're working for, and the people working for that are people like the Catholic Church which strongly oppose the new Progressive Family Code of Cuba, as well as the rights to abortion, that passed in Chile, and in Colombia and in Mexico . And of course in the United States, supporting the anti-abortion forces . And so these struggles of family form are being fought out not explicitly but are being fought out in the political Arena, and what they are is a fight between a traditional family form based on women, whose biology - just like a serf's- birth consigns that serf to working on the land of the Lord, that the woman's biology as a female consigns her to working as a dependent for a male, to cook, to clean, to shop, to prepare a house and to do child care and to provide sex for a male.

That family form, which is very much associated with the right wing, is weakening in the United States, and is being fought out here as I explained; and is also being fought out in South America. It's interesting that now South America, and a country like Cuba as well as even Mexico are ahead of the United States on abortion law, as is Chile, and Colombia. Very interesting. At any rate there is a class transformation. There is a revolution that has happened in the United States and one of the reasons that I am so interested in the Cuban family law , is that it acknowledges the importance of that revolution in the home, importance of personal relationships, and in that law - the Declaration that I read, because it has been translated, even though the whole thing hasn't yet been translated, is that we can now be truly revolutionary, because we can revolutionize our personal life: the way we treat each other and the way we treat children. That is a true revolution.

And so what we are seeing now, as the fights heat up on birth control, on abortion, on lgbtqia plus rights - really fights that are class fights: from a feudal family or feudal fascist family, to an ancient or communal family or an independent or communal family - used to be called an ancient family. That kind of independent family of a person alone raising their children, now it's called (by me) - an independent family. But there is a revolution, a class revolution, going on : from feudalism for women to a communal family for women, or an independent family for women - and that's something to watch, and to watch and celebrate in the new Cuban Family Code.

Thank you very much.

Goodbye for now.

Transcript by Carol 

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Showing 1 comment

  • Mark J. Lovas
    commented 2022-10-29 08:24:11 -0400
    Two days ago my 96 year-old mother had a fall. She slid out of the seat of her walker. My mother is a cripple. She has been due a new walker for 3.5 years. The walker she’s got is a hand-me-down and is defective, but the authorities won’t give her another one. The USA system of medical provision is so bad that no doctor has been able to get her what she needs—and we’re talking about three differen GP’s. The “Assisted Living” where my mother lives does not provide her with a wearable emergency alert button. (There are devices on the wall near her bed and in the bathroom.) So, when she fell she could not get up by herself. She had to wait for help.. She suffered no “serious” injuries—not physical. But how she must now be afraid! And worried! What cruelty!

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